Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

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Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

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So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

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After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

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In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

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And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

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I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

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So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

40 thoughts on “Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

    1. English Heritage who are the custodians of all such sites tend to the view of leaving well alone – unless the place is threatened by development. Their position is that all archaeology in the end is destructive, and they don’t actually need it in this case to prove the site is important and so worth protecting. There are non-invasive exploration techniques such as radar, but the results can be misleading. I think a few test trenches could not hurt now that we have such accurate recording devices. So yes, indeed, it would be wonderful if someone could do a bit of careful excavation.

      1. Interesting perspective. In Ireland it seems like they have explored a lot of them and then “restored” them which arguably could be right or wrong…In fact and Newgrange my husband and I have doubts that the white and black rocks on the exterior were meant to look the way they do. Some say they were supposed to be on the ground surrounding the site as offerings. But, regardless. I love visiting and seeing it whether in a current or restored state. Great post. Thank you.

  1. why here I wonder? very well written up Tish and so informative right down to the Bateman quote. A worthwhile visit and especially so without the usual brown rice and sandals brigade

    1. Why here is good question, Laura. Though a look at the Ordnance Survey map suggests that the Peak District was a surprisingly busy place in Neolithic/Bronze Age times. There are stone circles, mostly much smaller, all over the place. And just as Neolithic farmers were responsible for deforesting much of Dartmoor, I guess they did much the same in other upland areas, their grazing animals inhibiting regrowth of trees. It’s also possible the upland climate wasn’t so bleak back then, and moors a more attractive place to live than in more recent centuries. Lots of guesswork though 🙂

  2. Stonehenge was one of my ports of call forty years ago Tish, back in the days when you could walk among and sit on the stones for a photo opportunity. It would be so neat to explore of Abor Low. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  3. Fascinating Tish. I particularly enjoyed reading about the reality of creating such a place. I guess I never thought about it before. Given their tools all the hedges are extraordinary creations. And I loved the photographs of today – the beautiful rolling green hills of England.
    Alison

  4. I love these types of sites. My first (of many) visits to Stonehenge was before the barrier ropes were put up. Walking among those stones gave me a very strange feeling. I visited another site not far from Stonehenge (maybe Avebury?) were we walked among the stones. These sites are a wonderful, fascinating part of British history.

    1. I think you can still walk among the Avebury stones. And you area absolutely right: these sites are wonderful, all sorts of new amazing discoveries have been going on recently in Scotland.

  5. You’ve done it again. That wonderful setting of the scene with that first photo, grass in the left hand corner making it more than documentary. Then putting us in the place of the makers and bringing the past alive. (Something you’ve done before to great effect). You really know how to activate the imagination. And then the archeological history. Altogether a post worth waiting to savour.

    On the question of mentioning Stonehenge in the same breath, I’d be a bit cynical and suggest it was an advertising ploy! Hook you in with Stonehenge, and then offer you Arbor Low, making it difficult to avoid comparison and accept its uniqueness.

    Your opening description of lack of facilities makes it sound like my sort of place.

    1. Avery big thank you, Meg, though I did rather put you on the spot. And that’s a v. interesting thought about the comparisons with Stonehenge. Am just grateful that it doesn’t seem to be working advertising-wise.

      1. I am somewhat like a bad penny in this regard. 🙂
        I did see the post in my email this morning.
        But half of last week I was without my computer as we got hit by bad lightening and the motherboard on my desktop got fried.
        It did not have Wi Fi and thus, the lightening fried the modum, and ran along the Ethernet cable to the stack.
        Nice, eh?

      2. Ems told me that the bloke at our local computer fixit shop, The Matrix, reckons he can scrounge second hand components from the shop’s stores. (She and the wife dropped it off to see if it could be saved)
        He will also install a wifi thingy, so no more perishing cables!
        And he said he might have an old screen he could rig to my HP laptop!
        When asked how much he said we can trade.
        Trade says they?
        Cakes says he!

        Ah, bless his sweet tooth!

        🙂

  6. Quite a wonderful way to present this site, Tish. We pride ourselves for what we know and our achievements but Arbor Low and Stonehenge, more than anything, illustrate how little we know of our distant past. Love this post.

    1. Thank you, John. Such a good point you make too – that we sometimes need to remind ourselves that for all we think we know, there’s an awful lot more that we don’t.

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